Saturday, October 29, 2016

Learning to See and Serve Christ in Poor Lazarus: Homily for the 5th Sunday of Luke

Luke 16:19-31
It is tempting to think that those who seem to have it all in this world are God’s favorites whose success is a reward for holiness and virtue.  It is appealing to think that God’s kingdom is simply an eternal manifestation of the arrangements of this world, of life as we know it, where the powerful usually lord it over the weak and the rich almost always seem to get their way.
            The parable of Lazarus and the rich man powerfully warns again that temptation, for it shows that those who love, worship, and serve only themselves ultimately become blind to Christ as they encounter Him in their poor and needy neighbors.  It shows that God’s reign is a great reversal where the humble will be exalted, blessed, and comforted, while the high and mighty will be put down.  The issue, of course, is not simply how much money one has, but whether we have opened our souls in humility to personal union with the Lord such that His mercy, love, and holiness have become characteristic of us.  The issue is whether we have been healed of the ravages of sin, whether our spiritual vision has been filled with light that overcomes the darkness within us.  Ultimately, the question is whether we have become living icons of Jesus Christ.
            The rich man ignored the clear teachings of Moses and the prophets on his obligation to care for his poor neighbors.  By literally stepping over the wretched beggar Lazarus on his front porch time and time again, he blinded himself to the humanity of one created in the image and likeness of God and with whom Christ identified Himself as “the least of these my brethren.”  He ignored God every time that he ignored his neighbor.  This blindness became so characteristic of the rich man that, once he departed this life, he was unable to behold the brilliant glory of God and could perceive only a tormenting flame.  St. Isaac the Syrian referred to the sufferings of those in Hades as “the scourge of love.”  In other words, God’s love remains eternally, but some become so distorted by self-centeredness, disregard for their neighbors, and hatred of God that they are incapable of experiencing being in the presence of the Lord as anything other than the torment of “bitter regret.”  They suffer the consequences of their own self-imposed rejection of a relationship with Him.  
            We do not yet have the eyes to see it, but everything that we say, do, and think in this life shapes who we are before God, both now and for eternity. That is especially true in matters relating to other people, particularly those who are needy, inconvenient, and easy to overlook.  Whether we liked it or not, our Lord has identified Himself with them.  If we say that we love and serve Him while disregarding the poor, sick, and lonely, we are simply deceiving ourselves.       
            Our Lord brought salvation to the world by lowering Himself even to the point of death on the Cross, burial in a tomb, and descent into Hades.  He went to the place of the dead in order to look for fallen Adam and Eve and to set them, and all the departed, free from the slavery to sin and death that had so distorted their ancient glory as those created to become like God in holiness.  Having lowered Himself out of love, Christ rose in glory and brought them into the eternal presence of God. 

            We will take our place in this narrative of salvation by manifesting in our own lives the descent of the Savior into a world corrupted by sin and death out of love for others. We will find the healing of our souls as we learn to see, serve, and love Christ in the people we encounter every day.  The point is not to attempt to use God in order to get what we want in this life or the next, but instead to find the fullness of life in Him by joining ourselves to the selfless offering that Lord has made on the Cross for the salvation of the world.  We will have good hope of rising with Him in glory when we serve Him in the Lazaruses we encounter daily. Already today, right now, we may participate in the great reversal of God’s Kingdom by blessing those who are last in the world as we know it.  In serving them, we serve Jesus Christ.  When we call out for His mercy as we struggle to live faithfully in this way, we will behold a measure of the divine glory and find ourselves already participating in the eternal Reign of God. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Good Witness of Becoming Our True Selves: Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Luke 8:26-39
If you are like me, you often do not recognize yourself in your own words, thoughts, and deeds.  Sometimes we see how we fall short in an instant, while other times it becomes clear to us in retrospect, perhaps even years later.  Regardless, it is so easy for us all to be so consumed by anger, pride, lust, envy, and other disordered desires that we lose control of ourselves and act more like a bundle of inflamed passions than like a person created in God’s image and likeness.  And then when we calm down and come to our senses, we are understandably ashamed and embarrassed.  It is a great blow to our egos to recognize how easily our sense of self disintegrates before the passions that so often run wild within us.
            When we recognize this difficult truth about ourselves, we can understand at least a bit why the man in today’s gospel lesson wanted to leave his hometown and follow Jesus Christ.  He had been so filled with demons that he said his name was Legion.  He had not lived a recognizably human existence, for he was naked, in a cemetery, and without family or friends.  Everyone was terrified of him, and even shackles and chains could not restrain him.  He had become a monster and people fled from him in fear.  But after the Lord delivered him from the forces of evil, this fellow was clothed and in his right mind.  The transformation was so shocking that his neighbors were terrified to the point of asking Christ to leave town. 
            Imagine how this poor man felt at that point.  Even as he must have been overjoyed at his deliverance, he knew that everyone he encountered was well aware of his miserable past.  They had seen him as a crazy, dangerous, and evil person and had wanted nothing to do with him.  Instead of simply thanking Christ for delivering him, these people asked the Lord to leave their region.  They were deeply disturbed by what had happened.  Of course, this man was at the center of the controversy and he wanted to put it all behind him.  So he wanted to follow the One Who had given him back his life and his true identity.
            That is not what the Lord had in store for him, however, for He told him to stay in his town and tell everyone about what God had done for him. Perhaps that was because there could have been no greater witness to the good news of Christ’s salvation than the living testimony of someone who had so obviously been set free from the forces of evil, who had so obviously been given back his life as a human being.   The people of that region did not understand Who Christ was or what it meant to encounter Him in their lives.  They had been simply afraid of Him.  But perhaps through the persistent witness of someone who had been so wretched and depraved and then became a healthy and whole person again, their eyes would be opened.  Perhaps then they would come to see that they too needed the blessing of the One Who restored “Legion” to his true self. 
            Surely, one of the reasons that many people do not take Christianity seriously today is that they do not encounter people who lives are visibly different because of their commitment to Jesus Christ.  Many in our culture equate being a Christian with simply being a good citizen or a nice person.  Many have realized that it is quite possible to be a good citizen and a nice person without being a Christian. Some who claim to be Christians do not attend a church of any kind.  Some who do attend services do not live in ways different from anyone else in our culture.  If we water down our Orthodox Christian faith to the point that it concerns only what we do for a couple of hours on Sunday, we will fit right in with the dominant trends of our culture that lead people not to take Christ seriously.  If our participation in the Body of Christ does not strengthen, heal, and transform us for lives of holiness, then we will not bear witness to what happens when human beings become their true selves through the blessing of our Savior.
            St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” In other words, those who are filled with the Holy Spirit and healed of their passions will live in such a way that their example will draw others to the Lord.  They will exist as human persons healed, fulfilled, and transformed.  They will move from being “Legion” to being themselves in God’s image and likeness.  They will become living icons of our Lord’s salvation.  Whether we like it or not, we all bear witness to Jesus Christ every day in all that we say and do, whether for good or bad.  Family, friends, coworkers, and classmates probably know that we are Orthodox Christians, and they likely take pretty seriously the example that we give them.  If we identify ourselves with Christ and do or say this or that, then that is what we encourage them to believe about our Lord.  If we do not become living icons of holiness, then we are sending the wrong message to everyone we encounter.  If we do not bear powerful testimony by how we live each day of the healing power of the Savior, then we are being unfaithful witnesses to Him.
            Contrary to popular opinion, we do not fulfill a religious obligation simply by attending services on Sunday morning, though we obviously should do so.  For Orthodox Christians to think about fulfilling or meeting perfectly what God desires for us by a particular action is a contradiction in terms, for our Lord teaches that we are to “be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) To become a partaker of the divine nature by grace is an infinite journey, a process of healing and transformation for which there is no upward limit, for God is infinitely holy. (2 Pet. 1:4)  Instead of imagining that we are mastering a skill or checking off a box, we must remember that our calling is truly to become like God in holiness.  No matter where we are on the journey, we have an infinite distance yet to go.  And if we ever think that we have arrived or completed the course, we should think again.
            Remembering that the Savior told the man to stay in his village and proclaim the good news, we must embrace the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life with integrity if we are to offer faithful testimony to our Lord.  We must fast and deny ourselves if we are to have any hope of living in a way that shows that human beings are called to something higher than slavery to self-centered desires.  We must forgive those who offend us and reconcile with those from whom we have become estranged if we are to model an alternative to the anger, fear, and hatred so powerful in the world today.  We must open our hearts to God in prayer on a daily basis if we are to find the strength to become our true selves in Christ as opposed to a bundle of inflamed passions.  We must regularly receive the Holy Mystery of Confession in order to find healing from our sins as we prepare to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord which enable us to participate even now in the banquet of heaven, the complete fulfillment of all things in Christ. And then we must make a liturgy of every moment of our lives, offering ourselves and all our blessings back to the Lord for Him to use as is best for the salvation of the world. 
            Whenever we are embarrassed to do so out of shame for our failings, weaknesses, and ongoing struggles, we must remember that formerly demon-possessed man.  He obeyed Christ by staying in a place where he did not want to be, among people who probably were not comfortable around him.  Still, he obeyed and proclaimed the good news by his words and deeds.  If we are truly in Christ and want to bear faithful witness to Him, then we must swallow our hurt pride and do the same.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

On Sharing Undeserved Mercy: Homily for the Third Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:1-10; Luke 7:11-16

            I have known people who have been troubled by the question of whether God is primarily characterized by human standards of love or justice.  Some of them have worried that a God of love would simply overlook evil and hold no one accountable for their actions.  Others have reacted against the view that God is primarily a harsh judge Who is out to get us and to make sure that we pay our pound of flesh for our sins.
        Those with time to spare can have a debate about such abstract matters, as though God where a math problem that needed solving.  But as Orthodox Christians, our focus must be different, for we humbly embrace God’s truth not as a speculative idea, but in the Person of Jesus Christ.  He is not a bundle of competing definitions according to the standards of our limited minds, but the Son of God Who became fully human in order save us out of a divine compassion beyond our understanding.  He lowered Himself, taking on the form of a servant to the point of death on the Cross, burial in a tomb, and descent into Hades in order to rise triumphantly over them in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  And He did not do so for His own sake, but for ours.  In Him, we encounter not merely the best human aspirations, but truly the Lord Himself Who alone is Holy, Holy, Holy.   
           What does it look like when the Alpha and the Omega of the universe becomes one of us, living in our corrupt world of sin, death, and personal brokenness?  In today’s gospel text, we have a clear picture of what it means for the Word to become flesh and dwell among us.  It means that He gives life to the dead and joy and comfort to those who mourn.  Christ had compassion on the widow who had lost her only son.  He consoled her, saying “Do not weep,” and then touched the coffin, bringing the young man back from death itself.
            The Lord’s great act of mercy for this woman is a sign or enacted icon of our salvation.  For we weep and mourn not only for loved ones whom we see no more, but also for how our own sins, and those of others, have broken, marred, and distorted the beauty of our world, of our souls, of our relationships, and of every dimension of our life. Death, destruction, hatred, fear, and decay in all their forms are the consequences of our refusal to live faithfully as those created in the image and likeness of God.  We have worshipped ourselves, our possessions and our pride, and found only despair and emptiness as a result, as well as slavery to our own self-centered desires.  So we weep with the widow of Nain both for losing loved ones and for losing ourselves.
            The good news of the Gospel, however, is the unfathomable compassion of our Savior. Rather than simply observing human suffering and letting us bear the consequences of our actions, the Father sent the Son to enter into our suffering, into our distorted and disintegrated world, in order to restore us to the blessedness for which He created us.  He came to heal us, to stop us from weeping, and even to raise us from the dead into the glory of the heavenly kingdom.  He came to unite us to Himself in holiness.  The Son touched the coffin of the dead man and he arose.  Christ’s compassion for us is so profound that He also entered a coffin, a tomb, and even descended to Hades, the shadowy place of the dead because, out of love for humankind, He could not simply stand by and allow us to bear the full consequences of our actions. 
             No, our faith is not fundamentally about punishment or wrath for sinners.  It is not focused on the bad news that we get what we deserve.  Instead, we celebrate the good news of the infinite, holy mercy of Christ Who will stop at nothing to bring the one lost sheep back into the fold, Who is not embarrassed to welcome home the prodigal son, and Who will even submit to death on a cross in order to destroy it by rising in glory. 
           Of course, we have our part to play in responding to His great compassion.  If we identify ourselves with Jesus Christ, if we are members of His Body, the Church, and are nourished by His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, then His mercy must become evident in our lives.  If we are partakers of the divine nature in Him, then His life must become ours such that, as St. Paul teaches, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:2)  If we claim to receive Christ’s compassion, then we must extend that same compassion to others, suffering with them in love, sharing their burdens as best we can, and going out of our way to show them the mercy that we have found in our Lord.
            If we are to live the Christian life with integrity, we too must have the courage to relate to others with true compassion as they suffer, mourn, and live with pain and disorder of whatever kind.  Perhaps they brought some of these conditions upon themselves.  Like the rest of us, they have not always done the right thing and have suffered the consequences of their own bad choices.  In some cases, they may actually believe that what they are doing is good.  In other words, they are a lot like you and me.  Instead of doing the easy and self-righteous thing by simply leaving them to their allegedly well-deserved misery, we must follow the way of our Lord, Who did not come to show mercy upon those who deserved it.  Remember that mercy and grace, by definition, are not deserved. The widow of Nain and her dead son did not deserve the compassion of the Lord, but He showed love to them anyway.  The relevance for our lives should be clear.  If we have integrity as Christians, we will respond to others with the same compassion that we have experienced in Jesus Christ. 
But we need to be clear:  Extending Christ’s compassion to others is not the same thing as being what our culture calls “a nice person” or making sure that everyone likes us or that we always tell people what they want to hear.  It took discipline, strength, and courage for the Lord to show compassion throughout His entire earthly ministry, especially during His journey to the Cross.  And every time that He healed the sick or raised the dead, He knew that the Pharisees and perhaps the Romans were watching, noticing Him as a threat to their power.  He offended them virtually every step of the way with what He said and did.  If we live and speak with holy compassion, we can be sure that some will take offense and think that we are crazy or even dangerous. To be His disciple is not a calling for cowards afraid of their own shadow or for people addicted to the praise of others, for it requires discipline, self-control, and a strength of character beyond our own power.  It requires a willingness to be out of step with the dominant ways of the world, whatever they may be in a given time and place.  
Unfortunately, it has become second nature to defend our egos by damning others, by building ourselves up as we put others down. Thank God, that is not way of our Lord.  If it were, we would have no hope for salvation.  If it were, the dead would be left in the tombs and the mourners would sorrow alone.  But because the Savior has come to us purely out of love for fallen, broken, sinful humanity, we must share His compassionate love with everyone we encounter, especially those whom we are inclined to ignore or condemn for whatever reason.  For we do not relate to Jesus Christ as isolated individuals, but as members of His Body who share a common life.  If we are members of His Body and receive His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, how can we disregard Him even in “the least of these” whose hearts and lives are broken, regardless of who is at fault for the circumstances?
Our Lord is a Person, not an abstract idea.  Prepared by prayer, fasting, and confession, let us unite ourselves to Him in the Eucharist, receiving His compassionate mercy even as we extend the same holy concern to our neighbors, loved ones, and enemies.  He came to call sinners to repentance, to heal the sick, and to raise the dead.  He came to save, bless, and restore people as broken as you and me.   If we receive Him, then we must receive them.  For as hard as it is to believe, He works through us to extend His compassion to others.  To be in Him is to become a living icon of His mercy, a personal sign of His salvation.